Monday, September 15, 2014

Mueller looking to add to mix of crowded forward group

Former first round pick is healthy, trying to find himself back in NHL 

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- With much of the focus on who the Blues are bringing back to an already loaded team that will see an influx of new blood when the 2014-15 season unfolds, one potentially new addition has one simple message:

'Don't forget about me.'

After entering the NHL with the Arizona Coyotes as the eighth pick of the 2006 NHL Draft, Peter Mueller impressed in his first NHL season (2007-08) with 22 goals and 54 points. The Bloomington, Minn. native seemed to be well on his way.
(Kloten Flyers photo)
Peter Mueller (right) led the Kloten Flyers of the Swiss League in goals (24)
and points (46) in 2013-14. He's looking to land in the NHL with the Blues.

But the proverbial "sophomore slump" got the better of Mueller as he dipped to 13 goals and 36 points in 72 games. He missed time that season with what would turn out to be a series of concussions that would derail the gifted forward's career.

Mueller missed 10 games in 2008-09, then was traded to the Colorado Avalanche late in the 2009-10 season and suffered a concussion following a hit by San Jose's Rob Blake that cost him the remainder of the season, plus the 2010-11 season.

Mueller's career path in the NHL hasn't been the same since. He's gone from the Avalanche to the Florida Panthers in the 2012-13 lockout-shortened season (eight goals, 17 points in 43 games) before departing for Europe.

Now he's trying to find his way back into the NHL ... and back to the form that brought him instant success.

"It was tough," Mueller said of his concussion history. "It's tough to really think about it because it happened so long ago, like, 'Did that really happen?' It's almost been, what, seven years now with my first year in the league. Time flies. It really does. Those first three years went by like that and obviously the concussions ... it just happened so quick and now I'm standing here. It's pretty crazy, but to get this opportunity, it really is a good feeling for myself and I'm  just trying to make a big name for myself here."

Mueller, 26, spoke with coach Ken Hitchcock over the summer about a variety of things. It didn't take long before he and the Blues consummated a one-year, two-way contract worth $700,000 (NHL), $250,000 (AHL).

"We've chatted in the summer. We exchanged phone calls just to get a feel where everyone's at, what he's thinking, what I'm thinking," Mueller said. "It's nice to have that communication from a coach even before training camp started."

Mueller, who arrived in time for informal workouts this past Friday, called the Blues' situation the best for him. Known as a skilled offensive player, he's trying to find his form and trying to find a way with a contending team.

"Personally, it was just the best situation I could put myself in to contend for a championship for the Cup," Mueller said. "... If they see something in me that can help this club and help them push forward to get to the playoffs and ultimately win the Stanley Cup, I take that with a great deal of pride. I'm harnessing that to push me through training camp and hopefully earn a spot here.

"You look at the organization, you look at the team and the success they've had over the last four, five years, it's really been a powerhouse team. For them to show interest in me is a really big belief on my part that they believe in me and I can come in and help. I was quite shocked, to be honest with you, coming from Europe and getting this phone call that they're interest in me. It was really a cool experience on my half saying a contender team wants me on their team. I'm taking it with a great thing of pride and I'm going to run with it as much as I can."

At 6-foot-2, 204-pounds, Mueller spent the 2013-14 season playing for the Kloten Flyers of the Swiss League, where he led the team in goals (24) and points (46) in 49 regular season games and another three points in 10 postseason games. He also added a goal and four points in eight games for the United States at the World Championships this past summer.

"You talk to anyone that put the puck in the net, you get 20 goals anywhere, you're feeling good, you're feeling confident with the puck," Mueller said of his stint in Europe. "I haven't felt that in a long time except my first year seven years ago."

But now, Mueller (63 goals and 160 points in 297 career NHL games) comes into Blues camp --  which begins Friday -- fighting for a job. He will be among a large group trying to earn a spot for a team with limited job openings. 

"It is a challenge. You've got to fight for a spot," Mueller said. "I've got to try to put my name out there, but it just comes with working hard. When I get an opportunity, I've got to try and make the best of it, especially putting pucks in the net. I plan on shooting a lot, trying to create some opportunities and most importantly, try to (help) make the team win and any way that they can. Obviously this is a very good team, a very established team. It's going to be tough, but I'm looking forward to the challenge.

Hitchcock has a simple message for Mueller if he is to make the team.

"Just play," he said. "He's a really smart player. He's a really intelligent, offensive player. He's had stops and starts in his career due to injury that really impacted his NHL career. So he just needs to come and play. He has a skill-set that's very, very good. Staying healthy and being healthy and feeling good about himself, he's just got to come and play. When you have a player that plays with that level of intelligence, he's going to fit in wherever we play him.

"I just know that the player before he got hurt, Mueller was a good player in the National Hockey League. Can he be back there again? Who knows, but he's just got to come and play. He's got a really high level of intelligence." 

Mueller will get the opportunity to "just play," and it all has to do with health. That's been the biggest obstacle during his young career. But as Mueller said, "Knock on wood, it's been great. 
(Florida Panthers photo)
The last time Peter Mueller (88) suited up in an NHL jersey
was for the Florida Panthers in 2012-13.

"Obviously I came back in Colorado," he added. "I only played (32) games (in 2011-12) still trying to get the feel of the game back. The lockout season didn't really help playing 40-some games. Obviously in my cards, there was no opportunity for me over here, so that brought me over to Europe. I thought it was a great experience for me to go over to Europe and experience that level of play, bigger sheet of ice and just get back into hockey. At that point, I thought that was the best fit for me. For me coming back over here, it's another great step for me getting back to where I was. It's almost like a new chapter in my life and it's honestly like starting over, trying to rebuild myself to where I was."

Mueller said he has to keep an open mind as camp unfolds. He knows he could find himself in the American Hockey League with the Chicago Wolves.

"I think everyone does, including myself," he said. "In all honestly, you've got to be ready for whatever happens. I knew that accepting the two-way. I knew there might be something happening, but I've got to try and rebuild myself here. Whatever happens, happens. But at the end of the day, I know I'm in the right spot and I'm in a great location and a great team. Hopefully everything all pans out."

Hitchcock recently made a comment, saying, "Watch Mueller make this team." To which Mueller responded: "For him to say that, it really just gives me more motivation to not prove him wrong and make sure I can stick with this team because I know that I can be a big help to this team. I'm just hoping that they can see that as well."

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